Prof. dr. ir. Thea Hilhorst

More than 274 million people around the world will depend on humanitarian aid this year because of war, natural disasters and poverty. At the International Institute of Social Studies (Erasmus University Rotterdam), Professor of Humanitarian Studies Thea Hilhorst studies the role that aid plays in these situations. She is regarded as one of the founders of the relatively new discipline of humanitarian studies. Her work is extremely relevant for addressing some of the major challenges we face today, including international migration, climate change and pandemics.

Thea Hilhorst
Professor Thea Hilhorst (Image: Studio Oostrum)

The world is confronted with more and more emergencies as a result of disasters and armed conflict. Hilhorst has worked at the epicentre of such crises around the world in various contexts. For example, she has studied the supply of food aid to Ethiopia, the consequences of the tsunami in south-east Asia and the effectiveness of emergency aid in countries such as Haiti, Angola, Rwanda, Sudan and Congo. She has also travelled the world to investigate subjects such as local resilience against climate change and community initiatives during the Covid-19 pandemic. Hilhorst adopts a sociological perspective, with an emphasis on the impact of humanitarian aid on the day-to-day lives of people, organisations and communities. One of her conclusions is that the focus in providing humanitarian aid is concentrated on addressing the exceptional conditions during a crisis rather than ensuring the continuity of institutions and economic and social activities. Wrongly, in her view. Applying the self-formulated concept of 'resilience humanitarianism', Hilhorst conducts critical research into aid that is targeted at strengthening the resilience of the people themselves.

As a pioneer of the discipline in the Netherlands and with the help of the tremendous reputation she has established worldwide, Hilhorst devotes herself to the further development of humanitarian studies. Crucial aspects of Hilhorst's approach are collaboration with academics and practitioners in the affected areas and the establishment of local centres of expertise and networks. In 2009, she founded the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA), which is building a network of academics and non-academics in this field of research. Her efforts to promote the training of young researchers is also characteristic of Hilhorst, who has personally supervised many PhD candidates and post-doctoral researchers, at least two-thirds of whom were from the southern low- and middle-income countries. Hilhorst has played a leading role in designing the curriculum for studies in her discipline in the Netherlands and elsewhere, for example by setting up an interactive course in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) for aid workers involved in dealing with disasters in crisis situations.

Hilhorst believes that research must be relevant and endeavours through her deep engagement with policy, practice and activism to make a real difference in global development and social justice. A member of the jury that awarded Hilhorst an ERC Advanced Grant noted her ability to combine this active engagement with an outstanding academic record is 'fairly unique'. She was also one of the first scientists to raise the issue of the safety of researchers doing fieldwork in dangerous or politically unstable regions.

As a true public scientist, she regularly writes opinion pieces and elucidates her research for the general public. She is often asked by national media to interpret ongoing conflicts, most recently the war in Ukraine. She is also tireless in using her knowledge to provide advice on policy for the Dutch House of Representatives and aid organisations, as well as in various advisory functions for the United Nations. She has also held supervisory positions in a number of organisations, including the Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction, the Humanity Hub in The Hague and the Core Humanitarian Standard Alliance in Geneva.

The Spinoza Committee is confident that with her deep commitment as a professor with the talent to foster relationships between parties, Thea Hilhorst will continue to make a huge difference to the lives of people affected by crises in the future.

More information

More information about the work of Thea Hilhorst can be found on her website.  

  • Who is Thea Hilhorst?

    1961      born in Voorburg on 28 September

    1998      lecturer and associate professor in Disaster Studies at Wageningen University & Research Centre

    2000      earns PhD cum laude at Wageningen University & Research Centre for research into the practice of NGOs (based on three years of field work in the Cordillera of the Philippines)

    2006       appointed as Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction by special appointment at Wageningen University & Research Centre

    2006      awarded a VIDI grant for research into emergency aid in areas of conflict

    2008      receives funding from NWO-WOTRO to study the link between food aid and food security in Ethiopia, in collaboration with Bahir Dar University

    2009      visiting professor at Columbia University for two months

    2011       director of the IS Academy on Human Security in Fragile States, a joint project of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, various research institutes and five large Dutch NGOs (until 2014)

    2012       receives funding from NWO-WOTRO to conduct research into reform of traditional mining, in association with the Institut Supérieur de Développement Rural in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

    2012       coordinator of the DRC programme of the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC), an eight-year worldwide research programme into livelihoods and social services in conflict situations, financed with £ 8 million from the UK’s Department for International Development

    2014       co-founder and director of the Research Centre for Gender and Development at the
    Institut Supérieur de Développement Rural in Bukavu, DRC

    2015       receives a VICI grant for research into disaster management in conflict areas

    2016       appointed as chair of the International Humanitarian Studies Association

    2015      accepts Special Chair of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction in the International
    Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University Rotterdam

    2016      co-founder of KUNO: Platform for Humanitarian Knowledge Exchange in the Netherlands, a network of eleven aid organisations and five academic institutions.

    2017       appointed as International Fellow at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), a consortium of academics dedicated to peace and conflict studies

    2017       appointed as Professor of Humanitarian Studies in the International Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University Rotterdam

    2017       visiting professor at the London School of Economics for three months

    2020       receives the ERC Advanced Grant for research into accountability for aid to communities in crisis, the role of advocacy and alternatives to aid in a new humanitarian landscape

    2020      becomes the first non-French laureate of the annual prize awarded by the French Red Cross to promote research into humanitarian and social issues

    2021       appointed as a member of the KNAW

    2021      receives an Open Competition grant from NWO to conduct research into transactional sex in humanitarian crisis situations